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Black protest songs back in spotlight

Feb 19, 2015
The Painted Ladies. Photo: Stephen Booth

The Painted Ladies. Photo: Stephen Booth

More than 13 musicians will resurrect the songs of Indigenous singer-songwriter Vic Simms’ 1973 black protest album The Loner in what they promise will be a “gritty, powerful, live music experience” at WOMADelaide.

Simms originally recorded The Loner in the kitchen at Bathurst Gaol, where he was an inmate. According to emerging Indigenous singer Luke Peacock, who came across the largely forgotten album a couple of years ago while working at a Brisbane radio station, authorities had hoped it would help restore the jail’s image after a series of riots.

“It blew my mind,” Peacock says.

“I think first and foremost the lyrics of the songs are what got to me … how beautiful they are. And not so much just on a level of thinking about injustices and things, but also the observations and the love songs.”

The digital audio tape, labelled only with a Post-It note saying “Do Not Touch”, was among a pile of analogue recordings from Indigenous artists which Peacock had been transferring onto a digital archive. He was moved to phone the man he now calls “Uncle Vic” to learn more about his story and music.

Next, Peacock recorded a demo version of one of Simms’ songs, then he got together a group of Indigenous musicians – who became known as The Painted Ladies – to revive the music and release a new album.

“He [Simms] was very surprised,” Peacock says of the response to his first call.

“Having been hard-done-by for most of his musical career, he was probably a little dubious, but in the end he was really quite chuffed and then really excited.

“He’s very protective of his work and his career. It’s important for us to make sure everything is run by him and to make sure he knows that we can be trusted with his songs.

“It’s something that he’s very, very proud of; we are in contact regularly and very close now as friends. He’s now like my mentor, I guess.”

Vic Simms and Luke Peacock. Photo: The Painted Ladies website

Vic Simms and Luke Peacock. Photo: The Painted Ladies website

Peacock enlisted Queensland band The Medics for The Painted Ladies project, with You Am I drummer Rusty Hopkinson producing the album and guest musicians including Ed Kuepper, Paul Kelly, the Bamboos, Danny Widdicombe, Dan Mansfield and Roger Knox. As well as himself and The Medics, the group coming to WOMADelaide will include Mansfield, Knox, three singers from the Warm Guns Choir on vocals, “plus a few surprise guests”.

The Loner is a country-soul album, and The Painted Ladies’ reinterpretation stays true to its essence, though a number of changes were made. Simms was given just one hour to record his album, with a band he had never met before, so Peacock wanted to put more time, effort and technology into reproducing the songs.

One of the songs that has been significantly rearranged is “Stranger in My Country”.

“It’s stripped back to me and a guitar and violin … it’s a much more intimate and slightly haunting interpretation,” says Peacock.

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“It’s moody and dramatic.”

Although it is more than 40 years since the songs were first recorded, he says the lyrics remain relevant today.

“Even the first track, ‘Back Into the Shadows’, it’s sort of blatantly about racial discrimination – it was an experience in his life that he’d written about, but it’s stuff that 40 years later I have seen, even if not on such an open, aggressive level.

“’Stranger in My Country’ is another one; listening to it now, it’s something a lot of people from any sort of background can relate to.”

Peacock says the songs resonate with him personally. He also feels a great deal of responsibility to their creator.

“That’s one thing I make sure is at the forefront at my mind. These are Vic’s songs and he’s put his heart and his soul and blood, sweat and tears into them.”

The Painted Ladies will perform at WOMADelaide on March 6 and 7.

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